Column: The new role of automation in broadcasting

By David Kicks, Pebble Beach Systems

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Listen up, class. There was a time when runners – actual people – would physically carry a tape from the local production house to the broadcast studio just to ensure a commercial played at the scheduled time and kept the advertisers happy.

That sounds like a ready-made seminar lecture in Broadcast 101, but it’s a lesson worth learning. To understand the future, and the importance, of broadcast automation we first have to appreciate its history.

High-profile, prime-time shows with large audiences are the big money-makers in broadcast, and always will be. Most broadcast companies to this day playout commercials as their main source of income, even going so far as to auction commercial slots as they became available for placement during extended sports or breaking news programming.

The poor, under-pressure runner mentioned above used to be the most efficient way of getting tapes from large broadcast libraries into VTRs where they could be cued up to the right spot and ready to play as planned. But this all was labor-intensive and fraught with potential errors.

Eventually, cart machines with robotic tape selection capabilities came along, followed by digital video allowing cart machines to be replaced with the video server. Now broadcasters were able to ingest video into the server more quickly, more accurately, and with greater control.

More technological advancements continued: “smart” uses of metadata, traffic systems, evolving video formats, video over IP – all contributing to reduce the number of resources required for playout and improve the efficiency and accuracy of content being played out.

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Then came the pandemic. Broadcast teams, like everyone else, were locked down and forced to adapt to new ways of working. For most, that meant some type of remote production.

An added challenge is the increasing use of social media as a main news source, not only making it harder to ensure the accuracy of a news report, but also significantly accelerating the news production cycle. News is reported and spread instantly the second it is posted on a social media site.

One result of this intensified fight for broadcast space, where everything is moving faster than ever, is the need to ensure there are no errors while playing out to air. It’s no easy task, especially with many control room staff having to isolate or quarantine, but still do their jobs remotely.

Broadcasters and service providers must enable automated, secure, remote access to their playout environment. When your system comprises multiple channels and even several playout sites, that requirement becomes even more critical.

Increasingly, broadcasters are embracing web-based control, monitoring, and management systems that allow staff to remain connected to the automation playlists for easy, simple and secure control from anywhere.

Playout specialists Pebble’s web-based monitoring, remote management and control application for its Pebble Automation solution is a prime example of this. The application extends the functionality of Pebble’s Automation to any broadcast team working onsite or remotely. It combines control, monitoring, media management, and system configuration tools – all accessible through an array of widgets on configurable web-based dashboards.

Users can configure their own layouts according to their roles, or range of roles, and switch between multiple dashboards. Designed for PCs, tablets and mobile devices, Pebble’s web-based monitoring solution is built on the latest JavaScript and HTML5 technology. The technology can also be configured for multiple automation systems, which may be running different software versions and be operating at different frame rates.

What are the benefits of this type of flexible automation technology?

For programs having breaking news or extended sports segments where the tendency is to insert as many commercials as possible, those now can actually be pitched right up until two or three minutes – even seconds — before going to air to try and get top dollar.

A broadcast operation can adapt to changing work schedules and production requirements faster. Instead of everyone going into the main control room to check work, now all that’s needed is a web browser to interface to the automation system to make schedule adjustments.

With much of daily life and business now finally emerging from lockdown restrictions, flexible automation will remain an integral part of broadcast workflows. It’s widely acknowledged that many habits adopted during COVID will remain in some way, quite possibly for the long term.

That includes some type of remote, or at least hybrid, work schedule.

There will always be a need for on-site engineers, but one goal of automation is to encourage remote monitoring. For example, if a router isn’t working for whatever reason, the user can remotely switch to a back-up and identify another router, or at least another input, to send a signal across.

Pebble’s web browser interfaces directly with automation system playlists, allowing remote users to work with either single playlists or multiple lists simultaneously. Users can adjust for daily schedules or global time zones, and monitor signals regardless of format from anywhere in the world. If any materials or media assets are missing, then making corrections on the fly is an easy process. Regardless of any changes made remotely, everything always stays in sync with the main facility.

The main point of all this? Automation is more important now than ever, for getting commercials or any type of programming to air quickly and accurately.

Now that we’ve received a history lesson and gotten a good overview of the current state, in our next article, we’ll examine automation in the context of navigating from SDI to IP environments.

About David Kicks, Pebble Beach Systems

David Kicks, VP of Sales for The Americas, brings 40 years of diverse industry experience to his role at Pebble. Having begun his career in engineering roles at Pro-Bel in the U.K. and then taking on sales responsibilities with Pro-Bel and Chyron. He moved to North America in 2004, and went on to hold senior regional and national sales roles with Snell Group, Vidcheck and Telestream.

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